As I have often said before, Second Life is the perfect example of a mature, fully-evolved metaverse, which the newer social VR platforms would be wise to study and learn lessons from. Just because it doesn’t support virtual reality does not mean that you can’t learn something from its 18-year history.
One of the ways in which I keep my finger on the pulse of Second Life is to head to YouTube, do a search for “second life”, then sort the results in reverse chronological order by the time they were uploaded (i.e. most recent videos first). Usually, I scroll back 24 to 48 hours to see what the latest SL videos are, and I always find something to delight and surprise me.
So I did this yesterday evening, and today I wanted to share with you three videos which perfectly illustrate all the wild and wonderful ways in which people are using Second Life. Platforms need to attract content creators, and in this SL has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations! See also this blogpost.
First, the newer social VR platforms need to ask themselves: Can you host a wedding? (In VRChat at least, the answer is “yes”.) Second Life weddings are big business, and you might be surprised to learn that there are dozens of wedding venues, many stores selling wedding dresses and bridesmaid outfits—and even businesses which specialize in making professionally-edited wedding videos!
Another question the newer social VR platforms need to ask themselves: Do you support particle effects? You can see the particle effects in Second Life at work in the fireworks in the previous wedding video, and here is another example of the creativity which can be unleased with the proper particle and light systems!
Finally, I ask the social VR platforms: Can you dance? Second Life boasts what may well be the single biggest selection of avatar animations on any platform (a quick search of the SL Marketplace pulls up tens of thousands of dances), which lets you unleash your inner musical director and create stage shows like the following:
So don’t be so quick to dismiss Second Life as antiquated and outdated! There’s life in the old girl yet! 😉 The creators of the newer social VR platforms might just want to spend a bit of time investigating, and get some ideas for new features or as-yet-unexplored new market niches in the metaverse!
Who knows? You just might yet entice a future wedding videographer, lightshow mastermind, or musical choreographer to your new platform!
Have you joined the RyanSchultz.com Discord yet? You’re invited to be a part of the first ever cross-worlds discussion group, with over 550 people participating from every social VR platform and virtual world! We discuss, debate and argue about the ever-evolving metaverse and the companies building it. Come join us! More details here.
Avatarism is a movement to recognize and protect the fundamental human right of freedom of form. Like freedom of speech, freedom of form is a claim on an endowed right to free expression. And like the right to bear arms, it is a right which will suddenly gain relevancy after specific technological breakthroughs.
Specifically, freedom of form is theright to choose the form in which you are seen by others...
Soon our physical form will become subservient to one or more virtualized ones. Fully controlling how we are seen by others will become more accessible, frequent, common, and culturally accepted, and be less like a radical, life-altering event, and much closer to how we think of changing our clothes today.
He mentions that some people choose plastic surgery or body modification to permanently change their real-life physical appearance, something to which I can attest. My dirty little secret is that I am obsessed with the dumpster-fire-train-wreck of the Botched Surgeries subReddit community, where I am routinely appalled by the horrible, botched plastic surgeries that people put themselves through in real life—butt implants that stick out like shelves, facial filler that gives unnaturally sharp cheekbones and chins, eyebrow lifts that make people look like they should speak Vulcan, and breast implants that look like overinflated balloons that are about to pop at any second. (WARNING:If you visit, you might need eye bleach afterwards! Consider yourself warned! I constantly come away from that Reddit community feeling much better about myself and my own body, though.)
Greg argues, though, that with the advent of consumer XR technology (virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality headsets, and eventually, glasses), we are at the cusp of an era where we can change how people see us, but in a less permanent way:
Soon our physical form will become subservient to one or more virtualized ones. Fully controlling how we are seen by others will become more accessible, frequent, common, and culturally accepted, and be less like a radical, life-altering event, and much closer to how we think of changing our clothes today…
Today, many are benefiting from virtualized avatars or by completely overriding their physical forms. Avatar chat apps and online games have allowed millions to embody avatars…
Meanwhile, phone-based augmented reality is taking off, letting people experiment with fully overriding how they appear to others. Snapchat filters, AR-generated clothing, and celebrity deepfakes are getting more and more sophisticated and accessible to your average person…
All of these point to a wider trend of virtualized, avatar-based representations becoming widely accepted and embraced.
(By the way, speaking of phone-based AR, you can check out my adventures with feeding Second Life avatar selfies into the WOMBO and Reface apps here.)
I was pondering all this when yesterday, news dropped that the Swedish supergroup ABBA (one of the best-selling music artists of all time, with an estimated 150 million records sold worldwide) had reunited after 40 years, and were releasing a new album in November.
The four members of the group spent five weeks being recorded in motion-capture suits for an upcoming series of London concerts produced by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic studio, which will feature Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad as holographic avatars, pictured as they would have appeared at the height of their fame in 1979. Yahoo! News reports:
The 10-track album, ABBA Voyage, will be released on Nov. 5, and the new songs will also be performed during a virtual concert residency that will open at a custom-built arena in East London on May 27, 2022. The “revolutionary” show, also titled “ABBA Voyage,” will run six nights a week and will feature ABBA holograms — cleverly known as “ABBAtars” — and a 10-piece live band playing 22 of the Swedish superstars’ greatest hits.
The ABBAtars were designed by Industrial Light and Magic (the visual effects company founded by George Lucas), and more than 850 people employed motion-capture technology to recreate band members Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad’s “every mannerism and every motion” from when they were “in their prime.”
You can see a bit of these avatars at the tail end of this new music video:
I still vividly remember the live Lindsey Stirling concert I attended in Wave as a highlight of my social VR experiences in 2019, where the electronic violinist wore a full-body 3D motion capture suit and special VR gloves, which allowed her to completely animate her avatar in Wave, from her head down to her feet (including each individual finger on her hands), as she played and danced! Unlike Lindsey, who played a live concert and steered her avatar directly, the upcoming ABBA concerts will consist of prerecorded avatar hologram playback to the music (performed by a 10-piece live band).
Truly, when the members of a band can appear on a physical stageas they were 40 years agoat a concert series, we have entered the age of avatarism! We may yet witness things which we never would have ever dreamed possible in the past. As Greg Fodor says in the conclusion of his article:
Avatarism is about the sudden arrival of transformative, new answers to a universal question: how should others see you?
If you think the answer is a simple one, one day you might just look back and yourself, and smile at your naïveté.
Some will respond that Google, Apple, Amazon, and many other firms commit the same level of personal data vacuuming that Facebook does, which is true. However, I actually have more faith that those companies will at least not weaponize their data against me. Few companies have seen the level of public distrust rise as high as Facebook (and frankly, the company’s recent fight with Apple over the latter wanting to make transparent how much data Facebook collects on you, is SO nota good look for Mark Z.).
Time and time again over the years, Facebook has shown that it cannot be trusted (see: the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the incitement of violence in Myanmar, to give just two relatively recent examples of egregious behaviour happening on the platform). Combine that lack of trust with its overweening ambitions, and you have a potentially serious problem.
I responded by voting with my feet and my wallet, deleting my Facebook and Oculus accounts, and vowing to never again purchase or participate in any Facebook/Oculus hardware and software, a decision which I explain here, and one which I continue to stand by in good conscience. I full well realize that I might be missing out, but I consider the price of admission to be too high (and frankly, too opaque). God knows how my personal data is being used, and Facebook’s track record frankly sucks.
I even went so far as to ask Facebook to delete all the data it had on me, but I also know that the Facebook social network probably has some sort of “shadow account” on me, based on things such as images uploaded to the social network and tagged with my name by friends and family who are still on Facebook. I am going to assume that Facebook has indeed done what I have asked and removed my data from their social network. Frankly, there is no way for me to actually verify this, as consumers in Canada and the U.S. have zero rights over the data companies like Facebook collects about them, as was vividly brought to life by Dr. David Carroll, whose dogged search for answers to how his personal data was misused in the Cambridge Analytica scandal played a focal role in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack (which, by the way, I very strongly recommend you watch).
Facebook earned roughly 86 billion dollars in profit last year, mostly from its data-harvesting/advertising business. It therefore has ample deep pockets to fund an army of public relations staff to curry favour with the news media in order to revise its less-than-rosy corporate history. And no, some people are NOT having it, and pushing back:
(Thank God for the salty counterpoint of Twitter. And yes, I know, Twitter has its problems, too. But at least Twitter gives you better control over what you see in your timeline, including blocking any promoted tweets that happen to irk you.)
So, I therefore take anything that Facebook says with a grain of salt. The news that Facebook has decided to take on the metaverse has already resulted in videos such as this one, by Thrillseeker:
“Biggest VR Announcement of the Decade”? Really? I would beg to differ. (That particular section starts at the 5:13 time mark in the video. There are quite a few other interesting news items which Thrillseeker covers in this video, by the way.)
Here’s a quote from that video:
What’s more shocking is that Facebook says they don’t want to own [the metaverse], they want to help build it, which immediately raises a red flag to me. Facebook has been pretty open about wanting to practically own VR. They’re not just a player in the industry at the moment, they’re essentially an entire team that owns the referee and the field you play on, having more than 60% market share in PCVR and nearly 100% market share in standalone VR.
As I said up top, Facebook’s past corporate history shows that it tends to dominate rather than participate in those markets it enters. Combine that with Facebook’s horrible track record with respect to user privacy and algorithm-driven psychological manipulation, which has contributed to a more divisive society rife with conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation, and I share Thrillseeker’s feelings of worry and skepticism at the idea of a Facebook-imprinted metaverse. I don’t trust Facebook.
Casey Newton: Because I know some people are going to hear this vision for the metaverse and just reflexively wish that you wouldn’t build it. They’ll say, Facebook wasn’t governed effectively when it was in two dimensions, and trying to build it in three dimensions is pure hubris. And people feel that way for different reasons. But one that has come up a lot over the past couple of weeks is misinformation. President Biden has since walked this back, but on Friday he was talking about misinformation related to COVID vaccines. And he said, “Facebook is killing people.” How do you respond to the idea that Facebook has played a role in making people hesitant about getting vaccinated?
Mark Zuckerberg: Well, I think that our basic role here — and I appreciate you mentioning the fullness of the context there, because I do think that the president offered more context on that after his original comment. There’s multiple prongs here. One part of it is we need to basically help push out authoritative information. We do that. We’ve helped, I think it’s more than 2 billion people around the world, access authoritative information about COVID over the course of the pandemic by putting it at the top of Facebook and Instagram. We’ve helped millions of people, including here in the US, basically go use our vaccine finder tool to actually go get their vaccine. So I’m quite confident, just looking at the analytics and the net impact, that we’ve been a positive force here…
And for the metaverse, I think that there are different types of integrity questions. One of the big issues that I think people need to think through is right now there’s a pretty meaningful gender skew, at least in virtual reality, where there’s a lot more men than women. And in some cases that leads to harassment. And I think one of the things that we’ve been able to do better in some of our experiences than some of the other games and things out there is give people easier tools to block people, just be able to have a sense of when there might be harassment going on, to keep it a safe space that can be inclusive for everyone, that everyone wants to be a part of.
Because ultimately, you’re not going to have a healthy and vibrant community if it skews so much towards one gender or the other, or a whole part of the population just doesn’t feel safe. So this stuff is going to be critical. It’s not just critical for having a good social impact, it’s critical for building good products. And it’s something that we’re focused on from the beginning here.
Essentially, Mark resorted to corporate bafflegab in responding to Casey’s question, sidestepping what was at the heart of the question: trust in what Facebook does.
Facebook Reality Labs is “standing up a Metaverse product group”, but it isn’t clear what this actually means…
The group will be led by former Instagram VP of Product Vishal Shah, and will report directly to [Facebook Reality Labs Vice-President Andrew Bosworth…
But there’s an important question the announcement didn’t answer: what exactly is this “metaverse” group building?
At first glance you might assume the answer is Facebook Horizon. But Horizon is only a part of this group. As the announcement notes, Horizon’s lead will report to Metaverse lead Vishal Shah.
Horizon was marketed alongside Quest 2 and was originally supposed to launch in 2020, but is currently still in a closed beta. Facebook no longer actively markets Horizon, and hasn’t given any specific updates on its progress.
It’s clear that Zuckerberg has been thinking about this metaverse idea for a while. But the timing of Facebook’s announcement is interesting, to say the least. Facebook has “a history of doing these kinds of technical projects that look like they might be revolutionary at times when they’re being criticized for their lack of social responsibility,” Jen Goldbeck, a computer scientist and professor at the University of Maryland, told Ars.
It’s probably an overstatement to say that the metaverse news was released to serve as an intentional distraction from the company’s current problems. But the thought undoubtedly crossed someone’s mind at the company. There’s a “70 percent” chance that Facebook’s metaverse project is a “distraction from all the bad things that are going on,” Goldbeck said. “The last thing they want is more discussion of their algorithms and Q-Anon and extremist groups.”
…I think it’s easy, and wise, to be skeptical of Zuckerberg and Facebook being the ones to pioneer the Metaverse, given the company’s history. Oculus has already run afoul of its users by experimenting with in-game, in-headset ads (literally the thing the villain of Ready Player One was trying to engineer), but past that, the entire point of the Metaverse runs contrary to what Zuckerberg seems like he’s trying to build. Facebook products, whether Facebook itself or Instagram, are about a digital presence for your real self, or at least a happier, filtered version of yourself. A main ideal of the Metaverse is about not being who you really are, and the ability to be anyone at all. Facebook won’t even let you use a fake name, and is busy harvesting all your personal data that it shares far and wide with advertisers all over the planet. A core tenet of the Metaverse is the ability to hide your true identity and retain all the privacy you could ask for. It’s the exact opposite of the entire history of Facebook.
Zuckerberg talks about sitting on his friend’s couch as a hologram like that’s some sort of pinnacle Metaverse experience. It’s cool tech, it is not the Metaverse, and I think he’s missing the point of the entire concept, along with why people actually want this thing built in the first place. I do not want to sit on my friend’s couch as a hologram. I want to attend a virtual Ariana Grande concert as Batman.
I have done a factory reset on my Oculus Quest (first edition), and it sits quietly in its box, waiting to be shipped to my sister-in-law in Alberta, where she plans to use it in her work with developmentally-challenged adults. I have completely deleted both my Facebook and Oculus accounts, and I asked Facebook to delete all my personal data. The Facebook app has never graced my relatively new iPhone. I even installed Privacy Badger and uBlock origin to block the setting and sending of tracking cookies to Facebook while I surf the Web! I think I have burned my bridges pretty effectively. (Now, I am not kidding myself, I am quite sure that Facebook has some sort of “shadow account” on me.)
In fact, the only remnant of Facebook left in my life the Oculus Rift I had purchased for my suspended research project, which sits in my office at the University of Manitoba Libraries, untouched as I continue to work from home during the pandemic. (I’m still figuring out what my new academic research project will be!) That VR headset has an Oculus account, and I have a little under two years to decide if I want to get a Facebook account for it when I am forced to do so. I can tell you one thing: if I do, it sure the hell won’t be in my name! I’m quite sure that many institutions of higher education are dealing with the thorny issues of being required to set up Facebook accounts for Oculus hardware. I’m also quite sure that Facebook/Oculus has lost some business because of that requirement!
At the same time, I am glad that the Oculus Quest 2 is selling well. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” as I like to say, and greater consumer uptake of VR will only mean good things for the entire VR/AR/XR ecosystem. People whose first taste of virtual reality is in an Oculus Quest will no doubt migrate to other hardware over time (many people are eagerly awaiting to see what Apple will do). I’ll tell you one thing: I trust Apple with my privacy way, waaay more than Facebook! I watch with amusement as the privacy battle between Facebook and Apple continues.
My experience with Facebook has informed the skepticism with which I look at all social media platforms, including the ones I use the most: Twitter and Reddit. I still derive value (and leads for potential blogposts!) from both, and I intend to continue to use them, and I still hang out on the new drop-in social audio apps Clubhouse and Spotify Greenroom (although I suspect that the Clubhouse boom has turned into a bust). However, I will never again use social media without wondering about data and privacy issues. Remember, if it’s “free”. YOU are the product!
I’ve also been watching Facebook take its first tentative steps into introducing advertising in Oculus apps. The BBC reported:
In what the social network described as an experiment, ads will begin to appear in a game called Blaston with other developers rolling out similar ads.
It said it would listen to feedback before launching virtual reality ads more widely.
It also revealed it is testing new ad formats “that are unique to VR”.
But in a blog on Oculus’s website, the firm said: “We’re exploring new ways for developers to generate revenue – this is a key part of ensuring we’re creating a self-sustaining platform that can support a variety of business models that unlock new types of content and audiences.”
Barely a week has passed since Facebook started testing ads in Oculus apps and already the initiative has run into trouble. On Monday, one of the handful of developers involved in the initial ad experiment said it was pulling out of the test. Resolution Games tweeted that it had decided that in-app ads were not suitable for its multiplayer shooter game Blaston after “listening to player feedback.”
The developer had encouraged its user base to leave their thoughts on an ad feedback channel on its Discord server. As spotted by Upload VR, angry players had also review bombed Blaston on the Oculus Store and Steam shortly after its participation in the ad trial was announced.
Resolution Games’ decision marks a setback for Facebook’s burgeoning ad strategy for Oculus. After squeezing more ads into Instagram and its main platform, the company risked irking passionate gamers by bringing ads to VR. Unlike those other services, Oculus isn’t free: An Oculus Quest 2 headset alone starts from $299. While Blaston is also a paid game.
I have been informed that, in fact, Facebook sells the Oculus Quest at a loss, hoping to earn back that money through software sales for the platform (which makes sense). In a discussion with Voices of VR podcaster Kent Bye (whom I admire greatly), I mentioned that I didn’t feel the need to subscribe to VRChat Plus, and he challenged me to consider the alternative: paid advertising in VRChat. I can tell you that the very thought made me shudder, and I changed my mind in a hurry, happily shelling out for a VRChat Plus subscription. And apparently, they are selling well:
Our community has shown their support by buying our optional subscription, VRChat Plus, which unlocks some enhancements and perks. VRC+ has been greatly successful, and has been instrumental in helping us expand via features like Regions. We plan on expanding VRC+ by enabling purchases on the Oculus platform, as well as allowing players to gift subscriptions to each other. We are so grateful to our community for their support!
I also find myself wondering about Facebook’s latest attempt at a social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, which many people expected to be launched by now, and which seems to be stuck in closed beta testing. I don’t regret not participating in Horizon by boycotting Facebook, not for one instant, but I do find the delay in launch perplexing. I have heard second-hand accounts that, while the in-world building tools are nice, there’s not a lot to do, and user moderation has been a problem area, despite Facebook’s surveillance attempts, which I mention in this blogpost. The longer it takes for Facebook to roll out Horizon, the more people wonder what’s really going on.
If you knew that Facebook was doing all of this … gold star, I guess. You spend way too much time on the internet.
…The company’s constant tinkering raises the question: Is Facebook trying so hard because it’s excited about what’s next, or perhaps because, like its peers, it is no longer so adept at predicting and then leading digital revolutions?
(The entire On Tech column is well worth a read, by the way.)
Anyway, these are just some assorted musings about Facebook this lazy Saturday morning. As always, I’d love to hear your comments and perspectives! Feel free to join the burgeoning RyanSchultz.com Discord server, where well over 500 of us like-minded social VR/virtual world enthusiasts gather to discuss, debate, and argue about the ever-evolving metaverse and all the companies building it! Or just leave a comment on this blogpost, thanks!